What the Greeks have to teach us about fundraising rhetoric

Classic rhetoric structures almost always have no place in fundraising letters.  We govern largely in prose, not poetry.  In an effort to simplify, the flowery and verbose take a back seat to hard-punching Anglo-Saxon words of action.

But there are a few classical rhetorical devices worth knowing for even the humblest of appeals.

The first is that we tend to remember things in opposing twos and common threes.

For those of you keeping score at home, having opposing pairs is called antithesis.  The most famous of these is “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.”  Many forget that Dickens then went on in that vein for quite some time, showing that he was paid by the word.

These opposing pairs can be a powerful way of setting an expectation and then denying it.  An opening sentence could be something like “Mary and John had long dreamed of owning their own home; little did they know that dream would become a nightmare” then going on to talk about the predatory lending practices that did them in and how you want to solve them.  While not a true antithesis (as those tend to have the same rhetorical structure), we tend to remember pairs of things.

We also remember three things if they are in a similar structure (known as tricolon).  We wouldn’t remember how Julius Caesar took Gaul if he just said “check Gaul off the list.  Conquered it.”  But because he came, he saw, and he conquered, it’s memorable.  We remember Churchill’s blood, sweat, and tears.  What we forget is that Churchill actually asked for blood, toil, sweat, and tears.  Even a master rhetorician as he went a rhetoric bridge too far.  We aren’t equipped to remember four things together.


For our purposes in writing, the rule of three often applies well to adjectives.  A strong three adjective pile-up can add emphasis, focus, and detail to a sentence.

An additional rhetorical device that is very useful is intentionally grammatical mistakes (catachresis, if you are feeling fancy).  Some effective ones:

  • Saying “over” when you technically mean “more than.”
  • Avoiding your brand speak (e.g., ® and ™ and capitalizing many a word, as if they were special)
  • And starting sentences with “and” or “but.”

When in doubt, ask if it’s how people speak.  If it is, you are probably fine.

Yes, your copywriters will run a river of red ink through these.  Ignore them, unless they are prepared to pay you the difference in donations.

Finally, alternating hypotaxis and parataxis can be effective at getting people to think about what they’ve read.  In English, this means mixing up your long sentences with subordinated clauses (your flowery sentences designed to evoke a mood) with short ones.  This breaks up the mind and allows for some rest between longer orations.

Most of the other rhetorical devices you can keep; a fundraising letter full of alliteration or written in iambic pentameter is too cute by more than half.  But these help keep attention.  And that’s our goal.

What the Greeks have to teach us about fundraising rhetoric

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